(UVALDE, Texas) — Jerry Mata, whose 10-year-old daughter Tess was killed in the Uvalde, Texas, school shooting last year, still returns to the campus of Robb Elementary to honor his child.
“I’ve been coming at nighttime, every once in a while,” Mata told ABC News. “This was her last place, where she took her last breath. I have to come until it’s demolished.”
Mata and other victims’ families are waiting for the buildings to be torn down, while the community grapples with mixed emotions over plans to demolish the school and replace it with a new one elsewhere in Uvalde.
Robb Elementary is the site of the second-deadliest elementary school shooting in American history, where 19 children and two teachers were killed on May 24, 2022.
Ten days after the massacre, the local school district announced plans to demolish the school.
It was not a straightforward decision, given both the events of May 24 and the cultural and historical significance Robb Elementary holds in the small community located 60 miles from the Mexican border.
Irene Stone, the director of development at Uvalde’s El Progreso Library, and whose family helped construct the school back in 1955, said the school’s past should not be erased.
“I’d love to see all this history that we have researched put in that memorial,” Stone told ABC News, “so that we can honor the men like my grandfather and my great uncle and my dad who built the school.”
Robb Elementary played a key role in the fight for equal rights by Chicano and Mexican-American students, who at one point were barred from speaking Spanish within the school’s walls, according to Stone, in a community where the population has long held steady at 80% Hispanic or Latino.
In the spring of 1970, 650 students staged a walkout after the firing of one of the school’s only Latino and bilingual instructors. The protest led to a lawsuit that found the district was in violation of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling 16 years prior and resulted in an order to the district to desegregate in 1976.
That decree was later challenged by the school district in 2007, but an agreement was reached with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, a civil rights nonprofit which took up the case, in 2017.
District leadership has spent the months since the Robb massacre seemingly at odds with many of the victims’ families, with some parents organizing a two-week sit-in protest at the district office, culminating in the controversial resignation of longtime Schools Superintendent Hal Harrell.
Gary Patterson, a career administrator named interim superintendent in Harrell’s place, said he supports the decision to demolish the school, but acknowledged questions about how to honor Robb’s legacy are complicated.
“I don’t think that the history of Robb Elementary or the significance… have to go away. Because to take the building down, I mean, it’s more than just the building,” Patterson told ABC News. “It’s the history and the culture. So, what we need to do is find a way as a community to memorialize the history of that area as well as the students who lost their lives.”
When asked about a proposed memorial on school grounds, Patterson said nothing’s been decided yet.
“We’re not at that point where those decisions are–the school district’s not going to rule that out at all. If the district feels and the community feels that’s the appropriate place, then I think yes,” he said.
“I don’t think Uvalde will ever outlive the tragedy, and I’m not sure they should,” Patterson said. “I think it’s become a part of our fabric, and we need to see how we can move together while we don’t diminish anything that happened there.”
Mercedes Salas, a teacher at Robb Elementary who survived the massacre and whose own children attended the school, said the school evokes complicated emotions for her and her family.
“Prior to that day I had a lot of great memories with my coworkers, with my students, you know?” Salas told ABC News. “My personal children attended… and they have nothing but great memories. So, I just have mixed emotions because my last day was a horrible day, you know, a day full of fear.”
Others, like Mata, whose family has attended the school for generations, are ready to see the building go.
“Robb Elementary should be a thing of the past,” Mata said.
There is currently no scheduled date or budget for the demolition of the school, but the district and Uvalde Mayor Don McLaughlin have assured residents that plans are forthcoming.
Construction is set to begin on a new school adjacent to one of the community’s existing elementary schools in August for students to attend as early as 2025. The district has set a fundraising goal of $50 million, which will be the sole source of funding for the school.
Uvalde:365 is a continuing ABC News series reported from Uvalde and focused on the Texas community and how it forges on in the shadow of tragedy.
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